Two Days In September
(On September 3, 1967, North Vietnamese gunners fired forty-one artillery rounds
into Dong Ha Combat Base. The ammunition dump sustained a direct hit
touching off one of the most spectacular series of explosions in the war.)
“Oh, my God!” the kid screams, his voice joining the discord of emotional lament. The kid is in shock. Partially dried, dark blood stains his forehead. Like the others seeking sanctuary from the terror plunging from the sky, he reacts instinctively by jumping into the first cubbyhole he can find. The density of the dust that hangs in the air chokes him. He struggles to breathe. The morning sunlight dims within seconds.
The sound of feet scurrying around outside the cramped quarters signals a sense of urgency. Men struggle in their attempts to escape the explosions. Those in charge bark orders for all to take cover, while at the same time assist with carrying the wounded.
The young man celebrated his nineteenth birthday only two days ago. He drank two beers in the German tradition—warm. Today, he inhales pulverized loam and can’t stop coughing. The unbearable heat in the supposedly safe haven causes him to sweat, and he shakes uncontrollably from fear and anxiety.
“Damnation! This is surreal,” says another youth, newly arrived in the country the day before. He bit off part of his bottom lip, blood oozing down his chin. Terror numbs his pain. The horror of the attack is starting to sink in.
“Goddamit! Here it comes again!” shouts the kid from inside the dusty asylum. He closes his eyes. . . .
Americans, the world community, and even the terrorists who inflict the deadly blow, see the tragedy unfold before their eyes again and again, as television networks vie for exclusive interviews—“ratings” month has arrived early. The “surreal” images now appearing on live TV have trumped the Condit story.
I’m on my way to school when I first hear the news about the attack on the World Trade Center. As a 53 year-old veteran, medically retired because of severe symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, I often listen to the Vietnam-era songs of my youth played on the “oldies” station. Today is no exception. The program is interrupted by a news flash announcing that an airliner has crashed into one of the towers.
My first reaction is to ignore the breaking news as just another unfortunate accident. Struggling to learn how to deal with catastrophic events which claim hundreds of lives, I had not been able to handle recent tragedies well. Columbine and Oklahoma City only enhanced the symptoms of my sickness. Now, I attempt to put mental distance between myself and things I can’t control.
The radio station continues its regular programming, but the music is interrupted a second time. The news reporter strains to find the right words to describe the crash of a second airliner into the other tower. He is now referring to both crashes as terrorist attacks. The music stops.
“Terrorist!” “Terrorist!” echoes in my mind. I want to hear music so I press a different tuning button, then another, and another. The terrorists have taken over all the radio stations. I continue to press buttons—base, treble, clock, cruise control, wiper fluid, windows, getting more frustrated with each button. I punch the eject button on the tape player—Chopin’s Concerto for Mandolin and Strings comes flying out like a bullet.
“Do not leave any cassettes in the tape deck,” I tell my wife slowly and deliberately each time she uses the truck. She always asks why? Now I know the answer.
I am enraged! I am under attack! I tighten my grip on the steering wheel. My knuckles turn white. The hair on my neck stands on end, and my skin stretches as oversized “goose” bumps rise. I’m nervous. I smell stagnant water.
“Incoming!” someone shouts. I run into the cistern bag as I fly out of my tent, knocking it over into an old collapsed bunker now filled with stagnant water. The smell hangs heavy in the air. My toenails dig deep into the soles of my “jungle” boots as I dash, hunched at the waist, into a bunker. I feel a burning sensation in the tips of my fingers as I claw my way into the deepest recess of the man-made hole. Others tumble in.
Every Marine that enters the sandbagged sanctuary comes in yelling. Once inside, they shut up, close their eyes, and wait for the shelling to end. Finally, the attack is over, but only after forty or fifty artillery rounds have found their mark. We wait in silence about five minutes. I open my eyes. It is dark both inside and outside the bunker. The ammo and fuel dumps have sustained direct hits from shells screaming across the DMZ. Fires burn out of control as smoke rises thousands of feet into the morning sky and dim the sunlight.
All the other guys leave the bomb shelter. I remain in a fetal position, cowering in the corner with dried blood on my forehead, lungs filled with dust. Moments later, Marines fill the bunker again—bombardment continues. The earth vibrates as explosions get closer and louder. My throat feels parched . . . I reminisce about my birthday celebration two days ago when I drank two warm beers.
The sound of honking horns from oncoming cars and the vibration of my truck as it bounces over the center line bumps shake me out of a trance. I pull into a gas station and stop at the pumps.
Dazed and frightened, I get out of my truck and walk around it a few times. I stop at the windshield-water bucket. I dip my fingers into it and splash my face. The cool grimy, blackened-water soothes me, and I slowly regain my composure. I decide not to return home but continue on to school.
Now parked in the school lot, I wish I were with my wife and daughters instead. I miss them. Soon everyone I have ever loved enters my thoughts. Yesterday, I’d have hurried to the cafe to study. Today I take my time.
As I approach the cafe, I can see through the windows that students are bunched up in front of the TV sets, watching and listening to the events of this morning. I’d never seen so many students in one place before today, except maybe on Fridays at the “Quad,” as some prance around in their “Greek” colors.
The news has gotten worse. A third and fourth airliner crash. Students stand mesmerized in front of the television sets. A few of them make barely audible comments. They try to make sense of the events unfolding before them. Each claims to know someone in New York or Washington, D.C. Whimpering sounds and muffled cries can be heard throughout the cafe. Students console each other.
I walk along the back perimeter of the students and staff crowded twenty deep, stopping only long enough to glance at the burning towers on TV. Watching the disaster makes me nauseous so I head for the closest bathroom.
“Hey, Roberto!” a young female student shouts as she walks toward me. What a surprise! She’s never even acknowledged my presence before, even though we’ve shared several classes. Now in front of me, she says, “Can you believe what’s going on?” She doesn’t wait for an answer. “This is, like, so unreal.” Her lips begin to quiver as she struggles to contain her emotions. She cries.
I want to comfort her but resist. I think of my daughters again and wonder who might be comforting them.
A few more students descend upon me, each with his own set of questions. They, too, do not wait for me to answer. Who are these kids? Why are they coming up to me? I soon realize these kids want some kind of assurance from me that everything will be all right. They so desperately want their parents. They settle for me, the older guy. If they only knew. I don’t know what to tell them so I make a few comments about peace being elusive. It will be up to them to achieve it.
“Don’t be afraid,” I say. I encourage them to call home and talk to a loved one for reassurance that they are okay. My next class starts in ten minutes, so I excuse myself.
Peeking inside my class, I see only two classmates. They sit at their desks and pretend to read, but I notice their eyes aren’t moving. They seem troubled. Normally most of my classmates are seated by this time, so I decide to wait outside in the hallway.
The deserted hall is strangely silent. It usually teems with students walking to and from their classes. The housekeeping lady walks by me. She dusts the base board of the semi-dark hallway. She reaches the end and then walks back dusting my side.
“Excuse me,” she says as she looks at me in an inquisitive way.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” I move to the other side against the wall. For some reason, I feel safe in the hall. A burning sensation crawls up my fingertips, as I hold myself up against the wall. The artillery . . . .
“I didn’t mean that you were in my way. I just wanted to tell you that they’ve canceled classes for the day.”
“Classes are canceled,” she tells my two classmates in the room. She continues to look at me, getting up very close to my face. What could she be looking at?
“What’s that black-looking stuff on your face?” she asks, pointing at my forehead.
“Blood,” I answered, wondering why the kids in the cafe hadn’t noticed it.